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Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
Theater of the Sensitive

Hamlet. By Charles Marowitz. Directed by Jonathan Gonzalez. Starring Christina Augello, William Boynton, Val Hendrickson, Kurt Kroesche, and Cat Schalis-Thompson. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Feb. 27. Call 673-3847.

Subject to Fits. By Robert Montgomery. Directed by John Sowle. Starring Dan Carbone, Vincent Camillo, Beth Donohue, Paul Gerrior, Larry Spenler, and Kathryn Trask. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through Feb. 27. Call 673-3847.

The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jean Shelton. Starring Anne Macey, Robert Corrick, Elijah Berlow, Rachel Klyce, and Dean Shreiner. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through March 21. Call 296-9179.

The opening shows in this year's Absurdist Season at the Exit are a pair of bizarre reworkings of sensitive-prince tragedies. Hamlet, by Charles Marowitz, is a short but wild take on Shakespeare's Prince of Hesitancy; and Subject to Fits is based on The Idiot, Dostoevski's novel about the epileptic Prince Myshkin, who stands out as a Christian simpleton in St. Petersburg's backbiting high society. Both shows locate the nihilism at the foundation of the older masterpieces, and dredge up something not just absurd but downright odd. Subject to Fits adds operatic songs for which you may want to bring earplugs, and Hamlet shows the young prince romancing his mother and pursued by his sister, while Ophelia gets molested by Claudius, directly contradicting most scholars' considered opinions on the matter of who-screws-whom before everyone dies in Denmark.

Marowitz published this rearrangement of Hamlet in the '60s, when absurdism was especially hip. His idea was to build a collage of what Hamlet himself sees after coming home "to find his father dead, his mother remarried, a court full of treachery, a state threatened by invasion, and every imaginable pressure forcing him towards an act he is temperamentally incapable of." Scenes and speeches are shuffled, spliced, repopulated. Different characters say familiar words to other different characters. Nothing makes sense. One scene has Gertrude, the queen, giving Polonius' famous advice ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be," etc.) to Hamlet, Guildenstern, Ophelia, and the Clown. Like a schoolmarm she raps out the meter with a blackboard stick, and makes her audience recite. Ophelia's a little Jezebel; Uncle Claudius looks like a pimp. Hamlet swings his sword at Claudius' neck while he prays alone, on his knees; the lights go out and the Clown falls dead from behind an arras, wearing Polonius' beard.

The play is an impressionistic mishmash of the contents of Hamlet's crazed head. Though it be madness there's method in't, and hard Freudian reasons for all the sex. Marowitz's version steams out the old pathos and exaggerates the meaningless pain. It's wacky but mercifully short and, in this case, well-acted. Val Hendrickson does a fine ghost, hard-voiced and haunting; Roberto "Peligroso" Robinson plays an authoritative Fortinbras; Cat Schaulis is a feline Ophelia; Phil Worman is perfectly cast as Rosencrantz, though I was wondering where his usual Whistleaire partner was for Guildenstern; and Kurt Kroesche does Hamlet with a nicely confused intensity. If the cast were not this good the play would be boring, but the actors' energy turns Marowitz's intellectual exercise into a fun night out.

"Subject to Fits is a response to The Idiot," writes Robert Montgomery in his Author's Note to the Exit's other show. "It is absolutely unfaithful to the novel; it uses the novel for its own selfish purposes; it does not hold the novel responsible."

Well, someone needs to be held responsible, because the play is too damn long. It's less original than Marowitz's Hamlet, staging the source novel's rough plot points more or less in order; and sometimes the energy in this production can't support the basic madness of the play. Prince Myshkin arrives in St. Petersburg looking like a fresh-faced hippie, simply dressed, and falls into the claws of a nobleman called Parfyron Rogozhin and a rich society dame, Natasha Fillipovna, who first treats Myshkin like dirt and then considers marrying him. The first act deals with Natasha's marital decision; the second act deals with the pretty young Aglaya Yepanchin's obsession with the epileptic prince, and with Natasha's violent death.

The cast here is not the problem. Beth Donohue plays Natasha as a bitch who sets fire to the hundred thousand rubles Rogozhin gives her as a marriage proposal, and asks Ganya, another suitor, to retrieve whatever burning money he can with his teeth. Ganya (Larry Spenler) is marvelously stiff and nervous, anxious to succeed in society; his father (Paul Gerrior) is a drunken and gravel-voiced general; and Aglaya (Kathryn Pallakoff) is a charmingly cruel and disingenuous brat ("Who needs you!" she shouts at Myshkin. "All you care about are the deepest regions of people's souls!"). Vincent Camillo is well cast in the lead; Kathryn Trask is a perfect Madame Yepanchin; and Dan Carbone, as Lebedev, maintains the show's bleeding edge of manic lack of taste. He's marvelously offensive.

No, the problem here is that the playwright doesn't know when to quit. He has the characters break into operatic song a few too many times -- the best one is a Russian march about the symbolic meaning of a stuffed gerbil -- and there are too many slack, obscure moments that don't pay off. It's what Hamlet would have been if it had lasted more than 90 minutes: a rather tedious concept play.

The sensitive-soul tragedy seems to be in fashion downtown, because only a few blocks from the Exit the Actors Theater is reviving The Glass Menagerie. A good production last summer of Night of the Iguana suggested that the Actors Theater had a knack, as a company, for staging Tennessee Williams. Menagerie suggests otherwise. It isn't long or unwieldy like Iguana, but it's as delicate as the glass animals that occupy Laura's mind, and since Williams puts two separate versions of himself into what we all know is an autobiographical script, it's hard not to shatter an audience's expectations of the way Tom should be played. But Tom, I'm afraid, is not done well. Elijah Berlow plays him with a single note of immature surliness and rage. The louche, clever, realistic side is not there at all, which means the humor isn't, either. Robert Corrick does a better job with the older Tom, the narrator, but even he seems careful with his lines, trying to get them out cleanly rather than attempting to evoke a character.

The show has some life, though. Anne Macey plays Amanda with warmth and color. It would be easy to stage a cartoon of the Southern matron in reduced circumstances, dolling up her daughter for a visit from a "gentleman caller," but Macey, under Jean Shelton's direction, offers a subtle portrait of an aging belle, charged with pathos as well as humor. Her inflection and timing are finely tuned, so a speech by her can sound like a whole symphony of nostalgia, pettishness, hope, and regret. This show leaves out the words and pictures projected on a screen that the script calls for, like "Plans and Provisions," when Amanda starts fretting to Tom about making "plans and provisions" for Laura's future; but Macey's performance is strong enough to survive those heavy-handed touches by Williams, and I think the projections would have worked.

Steven Coleman's set is excellent, as it was in Iguana: Brownish grape-patterned wallpaper, a gramophone, a dingy sofa, and an old credenza bearing silverware all nicely evoke a Southern family on its way down in 1930s St. Louis. But flat performances and choppy scene-changes make the first act a letdown, and the play only comes alive in the second act. The long, awkward courtship between Laura (Rachel Klyce) and her gentleman caller, Jim, is involving: Dean Shreiner plays Jim with an all-American energy that rides the edge of caricature, but his exit at the end really does feel sad, and the success of this scene literally saves the show.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Tales From the Dark Side
San Francisco Ballet. At the War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), through Feb. 14. Call 865-2000.

Bad behavior, both comic and disturbing, takes center stage in the first two programs of San Francisco Ballet's '99 season. Though there are moments of pure, unbridled joy, tension abounds, and some of the most luminous dancing comes from the darkest places.

The Lesson, Fleming Flindt's 1963 adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's black comedy, is such a place. The Dutch choreographer, who personally persuaded the playwright that he could do the piece justice despite Ionesco's apparent distaste for ballet, went on to craft a taut one-act that even Ionesco admitted to admiring. The ballet affords fine dramatic possibilities, and Yuri Possokhov, as the unhinged Professor, makes the most of these. Set in a dance studio that more closely resembles a prison, with designer Jens Jacobs Worsaae's slate-gray color scheme and bars over the windows, Flindt's Lesson concerns the clash of wills among an eager-to-please dance student, a sadistic teacher, and the tight-lipped pianist who covers up the teacher's misdeeds. Each is meant as an allegorical character of Nazi Germany -- the pupil as citizen, the teacher as Hitler, and the pianist (a maid in the play) as a Himmler-like figure -- and though the ballet works on its own merits, its goose-stepping conclusion and Possokhov's terrifying bully of a Professor can't help but evoke its inspiration. Possokhov dances the role superbly, his tightly wound fury interspersed by Chaplin-esque flashes of vulnerability. He plays jeering puppetmaster to Julia Adam's confused Pupil, literally manipulating her legs as she struggles to break free from his grasp. As the pianist, Anna Panciotti's crisp efficiency is a perfect foil to Possokhov's madness. It's a gripping ballet that unfolds in layers until the bitter but satisfying end.

Possokhov plays a different kind of viper in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's The Invitation, which finally makes its local premiere after its original 1962 debut at London's Covent Garden. This is a story ballet with an ugly twist: At a society party, a youthful dalliance between cousins is interrupted by the arrival of an older married couple whose unhappiness, telegraphed in their stiff carriage, infects the proceedings. The Wife (Sabina Allemann) seduces the young male cousin (Vadim Solomakha), while a flirtation between the young girl cousin (Lucia Lacarra) and the Husband (Possokhov) ends violently. Lacarra dances her part with winsome girlishness; flattered by the older man's attention during a party sequence, she flicks a delicate, perfectly articulated foot in his direction, an invitation of sorts.

We begin to dread the outcome of this exchange, however, in Possokhov's too-practiced handling and the giddy, carnivallike passage of Matyas Seiber's score. The rape scene that finally erupts, while not as shocking now as it must have been at its premiere, still burns itself irrevocably in the viewer's memory as a rough partnership of lifts and thrusts with a jarring physical climax. The ballet contains a trying amount of stage business, and a divertissement with party entertainers (dressed as fighting cocks) is a heavy-handed bit of symbolism, but Lucarra's dazzling pointe work and nuanced characterization are shattering.

As the Russian Ballerina, Joanna Berman runs away with Antony Tudor's Gala Performance, a parody of the worst stylistic elements in Russian, French, and Italian ballet. Hers is a wickedly funny interpretation with over-the-top, nostril-flaring dramatic notes. The Christopher Bruce piece Sergeant Early's Dream, a series of moving vignettes danced mainly to Irish folk songs, and Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces, an expertly staged vision of urban chaos, are welcome returns from last season. And in a powerful addition to the repertoire, Stephen Legate, David Palmer, and Guennadi Nedviguine make every unforgivingly quick beat count in Hans Van Manan's angular, six-minute Solo.

-- Heather Wisner


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